The Best Way to Build Field Recording Skill

2017/02/08

What is the test of a good sound effects library? What separates superior collections from weak ones? Are some field recording libraries better than others?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Years ago, I worked at the sound sharing website Sounddogs.com. Part of my job was adding sound fx to the website. I was in charge of vetting each sound library submission. I listened to every clip we considered adding. These days, I still listen to every independent sound library I add to the search engine website Sound Effects Search: over 1,600 so far.

You may think that the first clips I listen to would be a publisher’s superstar sound effects: the gunshots, the wild animals, or the fireworks. In fact, though, when I discover a new sound library, the first sound I search for is doors. I don't bother with the tanks or speedboats. Why?

Door field recordings are revealing. They tell you a lot about a collection. In particular, they showcase a field recordist's skill in unsuspecting ways.

Hyperbole? Today's article will test that claim. This post will share thoughts on the value of door sound fx and how you can amplify your field recording skills by capturing these unsung sound clips.

The Hazard of Using Poor Door Clips

What questions are helpful when browsing a sound library’s door collection?

Ask yourself:

  • Are there many doors?
  • Does the library provide different door surfaces?
  • What parts of a door are recorded?
  • Are there a variety of perspectives?
  • Are they easy to find and sort?

Why is this important?

Well, if you’ve ever tried sound editing, you’ll know it can be incredibly tricky to cut a door sound effect. Of course, the first task is matching the on-screen performance. You may not expect that there’s a world of difference between fitting to picture a door that opens medium slow or very slow. Is there a field recording that will match that? There’s more, too. Often the substance of the door doesn’t jive with the visuals. A glass door with a small wood frame may sound differently than a library clip with a smaller square of glass. The space of the on-screen room may not match the recording location. The majority of doors are recorded closely. Unfortunately, not every project needs doors like that. To fix this, often reverb is added to a door to mimic a distant sound. I believe it was community field recordist René Coronado who said in one of his podcasts:

“If you take a close photo of someone and put it across the room, it doesn't make it a wide shot.”

The same is true of audio.  A close recording doesn't play properly at medium distance.

The result of all this? In offline projects, the door will sound odd. For visual projects, it will appear out of sync. How do you fix this?

Record many door sound effects and capture them with skill. That gives you options to navigate projects using this tricky sound effect.

The Value of Door Sound FX

Doors are some of my favourite field recordings. Some may dismiss door field recordings as simplistic sound clips that are a waste of dedicated effort. Instead, they are one of the best foundation sound effects available to field recordists. I’ve written about foundation sound clips before. These are common sounds like traffic, office sounds, water, and crowd clips. They are by far the best sounds to record when you begin your career. Why?

Well, they’re easy to access. They surround us. You could record only doors from the houses of your friends and family and easily have a 3,000 clip library in a month. They’re also easy to manipulate and control. The same can’t be said for protest crowds or zoo animals.

What’s more, they’re useful. Any editor will tell you that you can never have enough doors in your sound library. Almost any project you work on will need these clips, and many different types at once. That ensures they’ll avoid being sonic museum pieces. You know the type: field recordings that are proudly captured once but never used again. Doors are different. You’ll find yourself using them in almost every project you join. A single production may need dozens of different doors.

This helps you find and experiment with an entire category of field recordings as often as you like. Using them helps learn from your recording missions on projects where there are consequences to your field recording decisions. So, they’re educational. Door field recordings are an excellent way to practice capturing sound fx. They are a quick way to supercharge your field recording chops. How, exactly?

Building Skill by Recording Door Sounds

Doors in particular require skill to capture well. Of course, anyone can point a microphone and swing a slab of wood. However, doors are some of the most expressive subjects available to field recordists. Most of this expression passes unrecognized.

Articulation

Part of this expression comes from what I call field recording articulation. A door sound is more than just a simple open and close. If you think about it, it’s incredible how many different voices you can evoke from a 80” x 36” inanimate object. Of course, there are the stock open and close sounds. There are others: hinges, knobs, mail slots, kick plates, push bars. You could build an entire sound library from lock sounds.

Knowing those elements help provide the proper sound effects for editors. There’s more, tough. Figuring out the proper articulation for a door helps you consider field recording subjects more wisely. It teaches you to how to analyze a sound by its smallest parts and learn each of their voices, then capture them.

Performance

The other half of expression is what a field recordist contributes: performance. Did you record a jail door opening, and the classic reverberant slam shut? Good. What other possibilities are there? Perhaps opening the door cautiously, as one would do if they were worried the prison guards will hear? What about closing the door reluctantly on someone wrongly imprisoned? What kind of emotions can you evoke? There are dozens of options.

You probably know the classic wooden door opening creak heard in every film. Don’t knock it, though. The ubiquitous Hollywood Edge Premier Edition door creak actually accomplishes something surprisingly significant that is recognized worldwide: how to communicate the idea of a door opening in 16 frames or less. It instantly transmits curiosity or tension, depending on the context. Can you capture a sound effect that does the same?

Unlike many other sound subjects, doors are unusual in that they offer so much expression from something so readily available.

Perspective

Capturing doors well also requires mastering perspective. This is how a field recordist uses space around a door to present it interestingly.

I first began to think differently about this while sitting in a restaurant in Toronto, twenty years ago. A colleague was sharing his experience as an intern at sound effects publisher Sound Ideas. They were in the process of producing what would be the Series 9000 Open and Close sound library. He suggested to the sound effects publisher that there were two ways to record a door, from the front and the back, unlike previously published door libraries at the time. Sound Ideas immediately incorporated his idea into their recordings. This (uncredited) person was Craig Mann, who incidentally went on to win an Oscar and BAFTA award for Whiplash.

Most doors are recorded closely. Would a contact mic augment a shotgun microphone track? For a full suite of recordings, add a stereo microphone at a distance on either side of the door. There are dozens of ways you can capture the sound of the door itself, as well as voices from the rooms surrounding it, too.

An Overlooked Tactic

It’s an approach that is commonly overlooked: to artfully capture door sounds requires proper articulation of each element, inspired performances, and an assortment of perspectives. Providing all three of these requires insight and dedication. The end result?

Practicing door field recordings has the opportunity to increase your field recording skill quickly with little effort. You’ll find yourself tested in the field and in the edit suite. With the practice you’ve had recording these accessible, expressive sound fx, you’ll ace that test and prosper.

Next week: A cheat sheet for recording door sound fx.





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